Proposal 2: The Fall of Affirmative Action = The Rise of White Privilege

On November 7th of this year, 58% of Michigan voters voted in favor what is called the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI). When this initiative passed, it eliminated Affirmative Action, and other race and gender preferences in state and local government, educational institutions and any other state funded organizations.  Clearly many voters felt that they had gotten rid of so-called ‘reverse discrimination’. They felt that many qualified white people were turned down for jobs that were given to ‘less-qualified’ applicants of color. This feeling among Michigan voters came as a harsh sting for those of us working for real social justice.

The effects of the MCRI will take some time to be felt. Its language will have to be incorporated into public institutions and other state organizations. Its terrible effects will be felt most strongly among women of color, who are now doubly discriminated against as women and people of color. In other words, institutional racism will have its most poisonous effects among a group of people who are furthest from positions of power and positions of decision-making. Affirmative Action, to name the chief victim of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, is, at this point in history, absolutely necessary. It may allow some people to sleep better at night if they can believe that Michigan is a state in which there is now a so-called ‘level playing field’ in terms of jobs and education. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Since the time when people of color were first permitted to attend colleges or universities, and women of color worked mostly as domestics, Black people have faced deeply ingrained institutional racism in trying to fulfill their aspirations and hopes. That institutional racism was still very much present when Affirmative Action was in place.

Therefore, Affirmative Action was an attempt to begin to create a level playing field. We are a very long way from real equality in jobs and education. For some folks, institutional racism, part of white supremacy, is a slippery term. It is often difficult to pinpoint, because it is a series of actions and decisions made by any number of people at different places in different organizations.

It is much easier to see racism in individual acts, whether it is a case of a Black women in a store being followed by a security guard who assumes she is a thief, a Black man in a car being pulled over by the police simply because he is Black. (driving while black), a white person asking a Black person (with whom there is no intimacy) if they can touch the Black person’s hair, or a violent lynching as in the cases of James P. Byrd in Jasper, TX who, in 1998, was beaten, tied to the back of a truck and dragged for nearly one mile by three white men.  The above racist events, of which these are merely three examples, two of which are common everyday experiences, are more readily visible, though not to everyone, and frequently remain invisible to those who are not the target of racist acts.  Institutional racism is difficult to prove in a legal context, and with the elimination of Affirmative Action, institutional racism becomes that much harder to fight.

White supremacy is the system under which white people enjoy a level of privilege, freedom, and mobility, in numerous aspects of life, not available to people of color. As a white male, I am the beneficiary of white privilege.  I can make myself aware of my privileged position and work to diminish the power of white privilege in the way I live my life, but I can’t choose not to be a recipient of white privilege.

It is an international system with specific local effects. One way of defining it is to see it as a sum total of institutional racism, ‘everyday’ racism, and a history in which white people have always received preferential treatment. Thus, it is crucial to discuss white supremacy in the wake of the Proposal 2 decision. The passing of the MCRI brings the issue of white privilege into stark view for those who wish to understand it.  To take one example: hiring decisions at predominantly white organizations. A job offer is often made to a candidate who the boss and other employees feel most comfortable being around.  It is highly likely that a white person, who white employees might feel they don’t have to tiptoe around, or a white person who wouldn’t put other white employees in an awkward racial position, i.e.- an ‘off-color’ racist joke told by an employee, is a more desirable candidate. Once again, this is not deliberate, pre-meditated racism. And this example is by no means the be-all and end-all of white privilege, which operates daily in personal encounters between white people and people of color.

The point here is that white privilege combined with institutional racism and the elimination of Affirmative Action radically diminishes the number of opportunities in the workplace, higher education, state and local government for people of color, and women of color in particular.

I mentioned above that Proposal 2 could be viewed as a single ballot initiative in one state. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The organization that drafted the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, The American Civil Rights Institute of Sacramento, CA, already wrecked civil rights in California with Proposition 209 in November 1996. The wording of the two initiatives was similar. In California, as in Michigan, the aim of the initiative was the elimination of Affirmative Action. Because Affirmative Action was struck down in California ten years ago, we can now begin to see what kind of damage it has done. The University of California system is the largest public university system in the country.

In the fall of 1995, before the passing of Proposition 209, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) admitted 289 Black students. This year, just a decade after Affirmative Action was eliminated, UCLA enrolled merely 96 Black students, and twenty of those were scholarship athletes. Thus, of the 4800 incoming freshmen at UCLA this fall, only 2.9 percent were Black.

The American Civil Rights Institute (ACRI) plans to take its campaign to eliminate Affirmative Action to every state. Michigan is only the second. The Institute is relying upon the surge of white resentment against programs like Affirmative Action which seek to make American society fairer for all its citizens. Sadly, the power of white resentment cannot be underestimated. The man who founded the ACRI is the Clarence Thomas of the real estate business; Ward Connerly is a wealthy businessman from Sacramento, CA who wants to rid the US of Affirmative Action. He receives a tremendous amount of funding the white right wing, which falsely believe that Affirmative Action has caused a plague of mediocrity in the workplace and at colleges and universities.

There are ways to resist the racist project of the ACRI. The organization actively fighting the elimination of Affirmative Action is By Any Means Necessary (BAMN); their name is a phrase taken from a Malcolm X speech. The organization endorsed is by a nationwide range of organizations and individuals including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, the NAACP, The National Federation of Teachers, UAW, AFSCME, National Latino Law Students Association, National Black Law Students Association, Delta Sigma Theta, Alpha Kappa Alpha, and many others. The group is marching on DC on December 4, 2006. They also recently filed a second lawsuit against Proposal 2 in Federal court, claiming that it is unconstitutional. This suit involved Jesse Jackson’s PUSH/Rainbow Coalition and several Detroit city workers union locals.

Finally, it is crucial to understand Affirmative Action as a form of reparations.

Put plainly, ‘reparations’ means ‘to repair’. Reparations activists seek both an apology

and monetary recompense from the Federal government for crimes committed against people of African descent for the Maafa (a Kiswahili word that means “disaster” or “catastrophe”). The Maafa refers to The Middle Passage, slavery, Jim Crow and other racist violence done to Black people. Affirmative Action is a form of reparations because it goes some way towards repairing the damage done over four hundred years of gross inequality.

With lawsuits being heard by The Supreme Court in the near future that seek to overturn Brown vs. Board of Education, the 1954 act which mandated segregation in public schools, and the battle to eliminate Affirmative Action, we are seeing the rise of a movement that is determined to destroy much of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

Web sites of relevance and interest:

The American Civil Rights Institute (ACRI)

By Any Means Necessary (BAMN)

Reparations (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations)

For more information about this article contact Tim Haslett at